Over the last couple of weeks, we've seen a flurry of reporting about one of the biggest charter school disasters in New Jersey, if not the nation: LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Partnership) Academy University Charter School in Camden. LEAP and its funder, Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, are now entangled in allegations of incompetence, cronyism, and abuse.
And yet, in spite of the many, many problems the charter has encountered, Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has given LEAP his blessing. Here he is this past October, cutting the ribbon at the opening of LEAP's brand new $12.5 million STEM school.
You may wonder how Cerf - the sole authority over charter schools in New Jersey - could have been so clueless about LEAP. The fact is, he wasn't clueless at all: Commissioner Cerf and the NJDOE had already identified LEAP as a "Low Performance" school long before Cerf attended the opening its new facility.
Back in May of 2012, the Courier-Post's Kevin Shelley reported that "fellows" in the NJDOE, paid by the foundation of California billionaire Eli Broad, had created a secret proposal to have the state take over Camden's schools, expand the use of charters and private schools in the city, and shrink the district's public school population.
As part of the proposal, author Bing Howell organized Camden's current public and charter schools into three "tiers": High, Moderate, and Low performance. LEAP's high school was Moderate, but its elementary and middle schools were Low. (click to enlarge)
So the NJDOE knew LEAP was not performing well; and yet, only now are we learning about the many problems LEAP has faced:
- LEAP's tax-exempt status was revoked when it failed to submit essential financial statements. Bonds that were issued to support the school's expansion - guaranteed by Rutgers-Camden, where Bonilla-Santiago is a professor - are now at risk.
- The IRS's revocation occurred back in 2010, even though the story broke publicly only this year. The NJDOE has never, to my knowledge, published information about LEAP's fiscal problems (perhaps the constantly shifting personnel in charge of charters at the NJDOE is part of the problem).
- LEAP's books were so poorly kept that it had to repay over $136,368 to the state for "payments it received for nonallowable expenses during the 2009-10 school year."
- LEAP and Bonilla-Santiago have an anti-union history, engaging in what was described as "illegal activity" until stopped by a ruling from the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC).
- LEAP's "executive chef" Michele Pastorello got a $24,000 raise this year, bringing his salary to $95,000, far above the typical wage for the position. Pastorello just happens to be the live-in boyfriend of the school's founder, Bonilla-Santiago. Bon appetite!
- LEAP has underperformed on standardized tests compared to peer schools, failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress for two years.
- Bonilla-Santiago has been accused by a former worker at LEAP of using school personnel to do work on her house.
- Years ago, LEAP was engaged in athletic recruiting violations, resulting in a rewriting of the rules of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA).
This is a very poor track record - and, again, the NJDOE knew LEAP was having academic problems. But none of this appears to have mattered in the slightest to Commissioner Cerf or anyone else in the department. The NJDOE ignored the obvious warning signs about LEAP's performance and allowed them to expand regardless.
For a man who talks so much about "accountability," Commissioner Chris Cerf seems to take little responsibility for what has happened at LEAP. It's long past time for the New Jersey Legislature to demand that Cerf explain how he could have allowed LEAP's expansion before addressing the many problems this charter faces.
Accountability begins at home.